Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment

By Paul R. Ehrlich; Anne H. Ehrlich et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Materials

The idea that we are moving into a world of absolutely secure and effortless abundance is nonsense.

-- Kenneth Boulding, 1970

Materials discussed in this chapter include nonfuel mineral resources, forest products, natural and artificial fibers, and some other chemicals; excluded (except for occasional purposes of comparison) are fuels, foods, and drugs.

The world situation with respect to materials has many similarities to the energy situation. The near-term difficulties arise not so much from "running out" in an absolute sense as from the rising environmental costs of mobilizing and using ever larger quantities, from the economic and social dislocations that result from substituting one class of resources for another, and from the political ramifications of the nonuniform geographical distribution of resources and the capacity to exploit them.

In the longer term, the question of scarcity looms larger. It is sometimes asserted that, since our planet is quite literally made of materials, and since, with negligible exceptions, these do not leave the planet but remain here even after use, civilization can never run out of them. Although this assertion is true in a narrow sense, it misses the real issues. For "nonrenewable" resources, such as chromium and mercury, exhaustion occurs in the practical sense when the remaining unexploited material and the dispersed used material are so dilute that concentrating them simply costs too much in dollars, energy, or environmental disruption. "Too much" in this context means that the benefits of having the concentrated material do not match the costs of getting it.1 For "renewable" resources, such as wood or cotton, the question is what levels of population and consumption per person can be supported by the sustainable yield. A

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1
An excellent exposition of this point is given by Earl Cook, Limits to exploitation of nonrenewable resources.

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